Mitsubishi’s silver lining for Holden workers

Research shows the loss of social interaction ranks above loss of income as the most difficult thing for retrenched workers to adjust to. Julian Smith/AAP

The images of Holden workers walking away from the plant this week following its closure announcement were the latest reminder the “job for life” era is over.

As Peter Capelli wrote in 1999, the goal for the modern HR manager has shifted from minimising overall employee turnover to influencing who leaves and when.

Despite large scale retrenchments in steel production, the airline industry and the automotive industry in the lead up to the 21st century, only one in eight respondents to an Australia-wide survey in 2003 thought that losing their job was likely or very likely.

That optimism was dashed in 2004 when Mitsubishi announced the closure of its Lonsdale engine foundry with 700 involuntary retrenchments and 400 voluntary retrenchments.

Following the closure, researchers investigated the labour market, housing, health and social impact of the retrenchments, looking at the process of adjustment to the retrenchments as well as the outcomes of retrenchment.

Worker’s stories about what a job meant and what was involved in coming to terms with getting a new job were included to inform analysis of the large amount of quantitative data captured at yearly intervals between 2005 and 2007 on job search strategies, employment status, salary level, training, health status, housing tenure, residential location, journey to work, family support and much more.

The obvious question is how successful were those workers in finding another job or coping with retrenchment?

And what lessons are there from the Mitsubishi research for workers, unions and policy makers associated with the impending Holden closure?

A key debate within the psychology of unemployment field is whether the loss of the psychological benefits of a job, such as social interaction and status, are as important as loss of the financial benefits for determining the mental health consequences of job loss.

The table below shows the employment status of former Mitsubishi workers at each of three waves of surveys undertaken between 2005 to 2007. Workers’ labour market experience soon reflected the general situation regarding casualisation of employment and unemployment in the southern metro region of Adelaide.

Labour market status over time, following the closure of the Mitsubishi Lonsdale plant. State of Australian cities, November 2013

There is every reason to believe that the outcomes for adjustment to retrenchment in the Northern suburbs of Adelaide in 2017 will also mirror the regional picture at that time, unless the profile of workers is different in each area.

The subjective experience of job loss

But what of the subjective experience of retrenchment – what was lost and what, if anything, was gained?

When asked what was the most difficult thing about leaving Mitsubishi the most common response (37% of respondents), mentioned the loss of social interaction.

This was experienced in many different ways - missing people, feelings of loyalty, loss of camaraderie, loss of sources of information and practical assistance, loss of “mateship”, loss of regular contact, missing the experience of shared activities inside and outside of work, loss of companionship, and no longer belonging to a “family”.

The next highest category of response to the question about loss was income (23%). Other responses ranked at a lower level of significance included “nothing”, job insecurity, adapting to change, stress of finding a new job, loss of routine, increased travel, inability to resume a respected role through work, losing access to a familiar work environment, disruption to work/home integration and disruption to place.

When asked what was the best thing about leaving Mitsubishi the most common response (around 30%), was the ability to undertake new and liberating endeavours.

Typical of these responses were:

“To be able to direct your future. Taking charge of my own destiny instead of someone else having control”.

“I think when I was working there it became the centre of everything… I’ve realised there is more to life… they gave me enough money to be able to do what we want to do, they have given me free time, it’s given me freedom”.

The next most common response was the retrenchment package, followed by “nothing”. Less common responses included a better job, less stress, paying off the mortgage, the end of uncertainty, work/life balance, health improvement and self-employment.

Focus on those who need most help

Retrenchments and plant closures are often characterised as universally destructive with workers the victims of crushing forces.

But this ignores the concessions unions have been able to extract from employers through industrial relations courts regarding retrenchment packages.

It also ignores the individual experiences of how people cope with job loss.

In all likelihood workers in the northern suburbs are going to have a tougher time than that experienced by the majority of their southern automotive industry counterparts. Nevertheless let’s not make it harder than it needs to be.

Policy makers need to be open to listening to the experiences of workers on what job loss means financially and for identity and belonging. They need to acknowledge the strengths and resources that workers bring to the challenge of adjustment and focus on those least able to meet the requirements of the new era of “flexible” employment regimes.